Music for Presidents' Day

Abraham Lincoln in Song
Gin Ridge Music 1009

Christmas, New Year’s, Passover, the Fourth of July, Valentine’s Day, Labor Day—they all have song repertoires, but where’s the love for Presidents’ Day? Now that there’s another Illini in the White House it’s time to resurrect the 2007 release Abraham Lincoln in Song. Illinois-based singer and guitar wizard Chris Vallillo avoids the modern folk music conceit of jettisoning tradition in the name of hipness. He skillfully chronicles the Civil War era and explores its diversity on thirteen tracks and in succinct liner notes. We hear songs of Lincoln’s youth (“El-a-Noy),” ballyhooed campaign odes (“Lincoln and Liberty”), tales from the Underground Railroad (“Nellie Gray”), mid-battle love songs (“Lorena” and “Aura Lee”), stirring martial music (“Battle Cry of Freedom”), and mournful offerings such as “Lincoln’s Funeral Train.” Okay, so maybe Stephen Foster never envisioned “Hard Times Come Again No More” on a Nashville steel guitar, but I think he would have approved.


MLB and Steroids: More Jive than Substance

Congratulations to Alex Rodriquez--his admission that he took steroids between 2001 and 2003 earned him the coveted “Outrage of the Moment Award” doled out by the sanctimonious, the pompous, and the purists. Count me among those who couldn’t care less. I just want people to stop talking about this nonsense and move on.

No need to deal with the sanctimonious; until one of them produces an ID card proving they are, in fact, Jesus H. Christ those who live in glass houses should unhand those stones. This is especially the case for sportswriters. As one who has spent time with reporters of all sorts I can tell you that many of them are better supplied than your neighborhood CVS.

The pompous—Bud “I’m Shocked!” Selig and much of Congress—are just trying to draw attention away from their own inadequacies by shifting focus onto others. At present MLB has become a scapegoat, or have the pompous forgotten all those NFL, track, and bicycling stars who juiced? Do the names Dana Stubblefield or Deuce McAllister ring any bells? How about Ben Johnson? Marion Jones? Jan Ullrich? Floyd Landis?

Did A-Rod cheat? Sure—just like every one who ever stole signals, corked a bat, loaded up a spitter, or convinced the grounds crew to cut the grass to their specifications cheated. MLB rules are always reactive, not proactive. Penalties for juicing are now in effect, so let’s trash the ex post facto and concentrate on punishing future transgressions. But if you think Mother Theresa-like piety will break out, get real. Mix competition with scads of money and somebody is going to seek an edge by straying beyond the Pale.

But of all the nonsense, none is as silly as that floated by baseball purists: that records set by A-Rod and Barry Bonds are “tainted” and should be thrown out or have asterisks entered beside them. This argument rests on the absurd assumption that baseball records are meaningful in the first place. MLB records originated in the 19th century with owners who wanted to apply factory-style discipline on their employees. Record-keeping—a form of accountancy—is sports’ answer to piece-rate work. Records were used to cut salaries of players not performing.

These days record fetishes are kept alive by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and other numbers’ geeks who want you to believe that statistics are timeless measures of excellence. Rubbish! All stats can do is compare players of the same era. Comparing Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds would be like comparing the track speed of a Model-T to NASCAR vehicles.

John Baker led MLB in round-trippers in 1911 with 11. Despite his nickname “Home Run,” Baker never hit more than 13 in a season. Why? Because he played during the “dead ball” era prior to 1920, when balls were wound loosely and were designed to stay in play rather than fly out of the park. Babe Ruth’s seasonal tally jumped from 29 to 54 the first year the ball changed. So can we compare the Babe to Baker? Nope.

Ruth would eventually slam 714 homers, but what does that tell us? Today’s ground-rule doubles were homeruns for much of Ruth’s career, but forget that; how many more would Ruth have hit if the centerfield fence in Yankee Stadium was today’s 409 feet rather than the 490 it was in his day? And how many more would Mickey Mantle have slammed? He managed 536 in the “smaller” stadium in which centerfield was a mere 461 feet from home plate! How many would each have hit in Corrs Field, for heaven’s sake?

Virtually every baseball statistic belongs exclusively to the era in which it was compiled. Would Cy Young have won 511 games in the age of the five-man rotation and bullpen specialists? How many of Ty Cobb’s 4,191 hits would have been outs if fielders had the gloves they have today? Gloves didn’t even have webbing until 1920. How many more hits would Maury Wills have gotten if he batted on artificial turf? How many homeruns would Barry Bonds have hit—even pumped full of ‘roids—if he played in 1967 when baseballs were wound more loosely and 44 homers were enough to help Carl Yastrzemski win the Triple Crown? (The ball was juiced again in the 1990s.)

And can we stop with the Hank Aaron sainthood routine already? Aaron is merely the HR champ in the era of diminished pitching. Only 219 of Aaron’s 755 homers were hit before the National League expanded in 1961 and pitching got considerably worse, and it expanded twice more before Hammerin’ Hank retired. Before expansion, even weak teams had numerous great players; now not even a payroll of $200 million fills out a squad of genuine major leaguers. (Unless you happen to think that Edwar Ramirez, Cody Ransom, Melky Cabrera, and Brett Gardner are among the immortals.) You simply cannot directly compare pre- and post-expansion MLB.

A-Rod asserted that it was the “culture” of the game to juice around the turn of the 21st century. He’s right—so let’s judge him by those standards. Hundreds of other guys juiced as well, but most of them fell far short of the numbers put up by Bonds, Sosa, and Rodriquez. The numbers suggest that A-Rod is among the very best of his generation. And that’s the only set of statistics that has an iota of meaning.


Fourteen Great Love Songs for Valentine's Day and Beyond

Any dweeb can write the “Baby, baby I love you” slop that you hear on pop radio. But if you’ve ever fallen head over heels you know that true love often hurts, and that it seldom conforms to the tidy hearts-and-trumpets scenarios played out on the Lifetime channel. Here are fourteen great love songs that express something real. I’ve listed my top three in order and the rest alphabetically.

1. “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell, from Blue (1971), Reprise 2038-2. Ask fifty songwriters and forty-eight of them will tell you they’d have sold their soul to have written this song. “Oh, you are in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so fine….” The entire album came at the time Mitchell’s love affair with Graham Nash was falling apart and I’m not sure either of them ever got over it. This is the gold standard.

2. “The Dutchman” by Steve Goodman, from Somebody Else’s Troubles (1972), Buddah 5121. Though written by Chicagoan Michael Smith, it was the late, great Steve Goodman who made us see the mad Dutchman through Margaret’s loving eyes. This may be the saddest song ever written.

3. "The Lock-Keeper” by Stan Rogers, from Fresh Water (1984), Fogerty’s Cove Music, 007D. This dialogue between a wanderlust-driven traveler and a stay-at-home lock-keeper is a musical values-clarification workshop in which simple love and humility triumph. I cry every time I hear it.

4. “Arrow” by Cheryl Wheeler from Circles and Arrows (1995), Philo 1162. Not many people can write love songs as good as Wheeler, but she surpassed her own standards on this song of deep yearning for a love lost.

5. “Dark Eyed Molly” by Archie Fisher from The Man With a Rhyme (1997), Folk Legacy 61. With his buttery deep voice Fisher drowns us in the dark pools of his beloved’s eyes and only a fool would call for a lifeline.

6. “Desert Rain” by Justina and Joyce from So Strong (1991), HSP Records 101. The purity and earnest fragility of Joyce Zemak’s voice contrasting with Justina Golden’s muscular mezzo soprano will stun you, the harmonies will carry you away, and you too will find love among the cacti.

7. “Donegal Rain” by Andy M. Stewart, from Donegal Rain (1997), Green Linnet 1183. Stewart makes no apologies for his sentiment-laden repertoire, nor should he. This heartbreaker of separated lovers is as delicate as thin ice. Listen hard in the final stanza and you’ll hear a single tone shift that’s more dramatic than a truckload of Celine Dions.

8. “Falling” by Kate Rusby from Underneath the Stars, (2003) Pure Records 7-4370-2. To hear Kate Rusby is to love her. And when she sings “I’m standing here falling, before you I’m falling” you’ll want to be the one to catch her.

9. “Garden Valley” by Dougie MacLean from Real Estate (1988), Dunkeld 008. Dougie’s tender song about being on the road and missing his wife and friends.

10. “Kathy’s Song” by Simon and Garfunkel from Sounds of Silence (1965), Columbia 2469. If you want poetry, Paul Simon’s the go-to guy. He’s here; she’s in London, and “there but by the grace of you go I.”

10. “The Lass o’ Glenshee” by Billy Jackson and Billy Ross from The Misty Mountain, (1984), Iona 005. This little-known treasure is worth seeking out and shining brightest among its gems is this tale of love among the heather.

11. “Love is Our Cross to Bear” by John Gorka from Land of the Bottom Line, (1990), Windham Hill 1089. Baritone and bared soul—is there anyone who doesn’t love this song?

12. "Old Laughing Lady," by Neil Young from Unplugged, (1993), Reprise 9-45310-2. Neil Young fans argue about this song, but I like to think that "Peggy" is the woman he married who makes everything "all right," even the inevitability of death.

13. “Speaking of Dreams” by Joan Baez from Speaking of Dreams (1989), Gold Castle 2-71324. Baez doesn’t write many songs, but when she does…. This one has it all: a May-December romance, love across racial barriers, Paul Gaughin, and Paris.

14. “The Wildflower Song” by Lui Collins from Baptism of Fire (1985), Green Linnet 1060. Remember those early days of love when you’re struck stupid and can’t function? Nobody has ever captured that giddiness better than Collins.

PS—Before you send me nasty emails asking how on earth I could dare leave out (your favorite song here), I’m the first to admit there are many wonderful contenders. My first list had fifty titles on it and it killed me to leave some of them off.
Confession: My first romance unfurled to the strains of the sunshine pop ballad “Cherish,” as did everyone else’s from 1966 on. I didn’t stop loving that song until Barry Manilow recorded it in 2006. Even sentimentality has limits.


Non-Smarmy Romances for Valentine's Day

I have a very low sentimentality threshold. While many others—especially other women, I feel compelled to admit—are cooing over Pretty Woman and its more recent counterparts (Music and Lyrics, for example), I am overdosing on what I consider gag-producing romantic twaddle.

Don’t get me wrong; I love sentiment, as long as it’s not obscured by sentimentality. Here are some of the rare love stories that provide one without the other. Enjoy one this Valentine’s Day.

Love, Actually (2003)—Excellent ensemble acting and a sharp script turn what sounds like sentimental slop into a romantic romp both uproarious and soul-satisfying. The best among the ten love stories interwoven here: Emma Thompson wondering if her grumpy husband (Alan Rickman) is straying; and Liam Neeson, grieving after his wife’s death, taking his very young son seriously when the kid says he’s fallen in love with a classmate. Even the usually cloying Hugh Grant has some sexy-funny moments as the British Prime minister with a crush on one of his civil servants.

(1995)—Forget Felix Unger and Oscar Madison … Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce play the oddest couple you’re likely ever to see on film. Eccentric artist Dora Carrington loves celebrated author Lytton Strachey, and he loves her, but he’s gay. But despite their inability to enjoy what they call “the physical” with one another, they live together in something like bliss, along with their various lovers. Pryce has by far the showier role, but it’s Thompson who does the tough job of making us see the distinctly unattractive, maddening, and self-centered Strachey through the eyes of her steadfast love.

erable Cruelty (2003)—The Coen brothers work their magic on a hoary film genre, the screwball comedy. As a gold-digger and can’t-lose divorce lawyer, respectively, Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney use their luminous glamour to good effect and handle both physical and verbal comedy nimbly. These stars do the time-honored dance of camouflaging an undeniable attraction better than anyone since Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

Truly, Ma
dly, Deeply (1991)—Anthony Minghella went on to fame as director of The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but his less-known debut is the gold-standard by which I judge all romances. Juliet Stevenson stars as Nina, in deep mourning after the unexpected loss of her beloved partner, Jamie (Alan Rickman). The supernatural plotline—Jamie returns as a ghost to help Nina cope—plays believably thanks to Minghella’s touching and grounded-in-reality script. Somehow he manages to include heart-wrenching sadness, trenchant political commentary, gorgeous cello music, unselfconscious silliness, Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and a getting-to-know-you scene done while hopping (yes, hopping) along the Thames. To call this “the thinking-person’s Ghost” is to damn this gem with far-too-faint praise.

Amelie (2001) [in French, with subtitles] Audrey Tautou brings her gamine charms to this thoroughly original story of how a kind but shy Parisian waitress finds her true love. Like all of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films, this one is highly colored and visually stunning. The story is both unusually sunny in tone and typically bizarre—a ceramic garden gnome, workers in a porno shop, and an automatic photo machine all figure significantly in the plot. Soaring above the quirky and delightful story is the life-affirming power of Tautou’s perky Amelie, righting past wrongs and bringing joy to her neighbors…and perhaps finding some herself.

Losers Rule: 5 Great Best Picture Oscar Losers

It happens every year—the best picture Oscar brings the winning film crowds of new viewers and millions of extra box-office dollars. Stars recycle the platitude “it’s an honor just to be nominated,” but history records only the winners.

The problem is that history—or at least the Academy members who vote for best picture—so often get it wrong. Among the films that did not take home the gilded statuette as their year’s top film are such certified classics as The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, Apocalypse Now, Sunset Boulevard, and Citizen Kane!

So the heck with winners—let’s take another look at some “losers.” Jumping back in time in five-year leaps, here are five fabulous films that were nominated for—but failed to win—best picture. This year’s Oscar losers can consider themselves in good company, for these “also-rans” are well worth a second chance.

Five years ago (2003) Lord of the Rings: Return of the King strode majestically past the intense, down-to-earth Mystic River. This beautifully written and constructed drama, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, packs an emotional wallop that will linger long after the film ends. Director Clint Eastwood knows just when to control his stars—Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon—and when to let their natural tendencies run rampant. Their characters’ experiences as kids growing up together in a rough Boston Irish neighborhood left ties of friendship and resentment, both of which come into play as they reunite after a family member is murdered.

Ten years ago (1998) Two British costume dramas shook their starched ruffs at one another, and Shakespeare in Love triumphed over Elizabeth. Naturally regal as Judy Dench was as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare, it was then little-known Cate Blanchett who recreated the definitive Virgin Queen for this generation. (She reprised the role in ’07’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and was nominated for a best actress Oscar both times.) The first Elizabeth emphasizes the political smarts the queen developed to counter the conniving politicians circling the throne like vultures. (Geoffrey Rush and Christopher Eccleston make particularly delicious predators.) But neither director Shekar Kapur nor Blanchett lose sight of the passionate young girl inside the slowly calcifying monarch.

Fifteen years ago (1993) Schindler’s List rose to the top of voters’ ballot lists, besting The Piano. Both were expertly told tales of human cruelty, kindness, and survival, but of such completely different kinds that it’s a shame they had to compete. The Piano uses the natural lushness of its New Zealand setting to mirror the transformation of prim Scottish widow Ada (Holly Hunter), mute and intimidated by this new, wild land; and gone-native rough guy Baines (Harvey Keitel). The seduction of one by the other, over lessons on the titular instrument, is one of the most sensuous fully clothed sequences ever filmed.

Twenty years ago (1988) Rain Man washed out the hopes of Dangerous Liaisons, one of the most compelling and sumptuous films of any decade. In 18th-century French courtly society, all was fair in love and love was war. Vice was its own reward for the conniving Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close, in a performance both powerful and subtle) and her devilishly amoral lover the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich, oozing oily charm under his powered wig). The plot is both complex and eternal, and it’s a tribute to Stephen Frears’ direction that the whole thing doesn’t drown in the lavish set decoration and elaborate costumes. Close’s emotionally wrenching closing shot has lost none of its power in the succeeding decades.

Twenty-five years ago (1983) Terms of Endearment heard sweet nothings from Academy voters, jilting The Dresser. So few Americans saw the filmed version of Ronald Harwood’s stage play that it’s a miracle The Dresser was even nominated. But this tale of an aging actor on the down-slope of his career, and the dresser who assists him as their theatre company tours Britain during World War II is—appropriately—an actors’ tour de force. And what actors: Albert Finney stars as the bull-like, bellowing actor/manager. He’s matched by a much quieter but no less impressive performance by Tom Courtenay as the dresser. This is a must-see for those who love great British drama and great British actors.

Top 10 Films We Saw in 2008

On new year's day, every year for more than two decades, I make a "top ten" list of the films I've seen during the previous year. These may or may not correspond to films eligible for Oscars and other awards for the year in question since--alas--not all films open here in the same year they're up for awards. Here's the latest crop of masterpieces...

Top 10
(in order, with #1 best of the year)

1. Frozen River
2. Favela Rising
3. Hairspray (by far the most fun I had in a theatre all year. This was followed closely in the "just-plain-fun" category by Mamma Mia, but I'd never claim that was a good much less great film.)
4. There Will be Blood
5. Wall-E
6. Persepolis
7. The Counterfeiters
8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
9. Milk
10. The Visitor

(in no particular order, and including older films)
  • Starting Out in the Evening
  • Elegy
  • The Band's Visit
  • Iron Man
  • Burn After Reading
  • The Fall (as the wise Boston Globe critic put it, "a narrative train wreck, but ooooooh, such pretty pictures")
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • A Passage to India
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Man Push Cart
  • MASH
  • Wallace and Gromit: The Case of the Were-Rabbit

And the "Avoid at all costs" stinkers of the year list:

  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (No more Woody Allen! Ever! No matter what!)
  • Happy Go Lucky (I left after 20 minutes of this treacle)
  • Beowulf (read the damn book!)


Yummy Films for Foodies

Many films practice “foodus interruptus,” where characters talk about eating, obsess over their weight, even fetishize food…but rarely actually consume anything on camera. And occasionally a film that appears to be all about food is anything but—My Dinner with Andre, for example (You remember the ideas, but what did they eat during that two-hour meal?)

By contrast, food is the main course in each of these delicious (and good for you too!) flicks.

Bon Appetit.

Big Night (1995) This tale of two brothers trying to rescue their failing restaurant is the pièce de résistance of foodie films. Pre-fame performances by Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci as the Italian brothers, and Allison Janney as a shy florist, make the film fly, but the cuisine is the real star here. Banking on one special evening to revive their business’s fortunes, the brothers put on a feast that outdoes even Babette’s feast (see below.) And yet the loveliest scene in the film involves the preparation of a simple omelet. Don’t miss this one.

Babette’s Feast (1987) Based on an Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) story, the straight-laced Danish townspeople don’t know what to make of it when widowed servant Babette offers to cook them a celebratory dinner. The moral tug-of-war between the townsfolks’ usual austere outlook on life and the sensual pleasure of an all-out banquet provides more tension and humor than you’d imagine. A simple story, beautifully told. [In French and Danish with subtitles]

Chocolat (2000) Although the film carries a message about the joys of food akin to that in Babette’s Feast, the similarities end there. Single mom Juliet Binoche tries to loosen up a French hamlet in the 1950s, outraging the locals by opening a candy shop during Lent and befriending the town’s outcasts (including Johnny Depp and Lena Olin). Alfred Molina steals the show as the moralistic Comte de Reynaud. Warning: you will absolutely crave chocolate during this, so stock up before viewing. [In French, with subtitles]

Ratatouille (2007) Can Remy the rat escape his fate of dumpster-dining and exercise his sophisticated palate in Paris’ finest restaurants? Pixar answers this question with gorgeously animated cityscapes and cute and funny antics inside the kitchen, where Remy teams up with a hapless human would-be cook. Unctuous restaurant critic Anton Ego is memorably voiced by Peter O’Toole.

Life is Sweet (1990) With Mike Leigh at the helm, you know the title’s ironic; expect sharply-written, bittersweet, funny fare. Brit film staples Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, and baby-voiced Jane Horrocks headline this portrait of a dysfunctional family, each obsessed with food in his or her own way. The biggest sweet-tooth award goes to Horrocks’ Nicola, a bulimic who sneaks chocolate and finds an, um, creative romantic use for chockies. [In British English; should have subtitles but doesn’t]